Peacemaking and the Old Testament

Marta asked in the comments (and if you haven’t discovered by now, comments and questions are the “fix” we bloggers seek) to talk more about peacemaking and pacifism, and in particular how it meshes with God endorsing war in the Old Testament. (Disclaimer: this is a blog entry, not a well-researched and thought out position paper. I’d love to have Bob Ramsey and Howard Macy, who are OT scholars, chime in.)

The reality is that the Old Testament gives us a picture of a history of Israel framed around a people who saw their conquest of Canaan as a God-ordained fight to gain land promised to them by God. How does that culture and theology and belief system produce Jesus, who said we ought to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and turn the other cheek?

One answer could be that God changed. Once, God selected a group of people and tried to establish a theocracy on earth. Every other nation was not chosen, and several had to be punished with death for their misdeeds and to make a place for Israel to live. When Israel rejected God and failed as a chosen people, God had to try a new plan with Jesus, and the new plan involved different rules. I’m not comfortable with that answer; but if you read many commentaries or the study notes of many bibles, you’ll see that view (implicitly or explicitly) proclaimed.

If God didn’t change…or, better said, if God didn’t change in how people are instructed to live, then what answer do we have for reconciling an Old Testament view of God endorsing wars of conquest, and a peacemaking or pacifist position? Here, very briefly, are some of the ways I personally reconcile the two.

We find clearly in the Old Testament God’s heart of compassion and grace, as well as his love for all nations of the world. The choosing of Abraham, the very beginning of the promise of a chosen people who will outnumber the stars, lets us into God’s heart: Abraham is going to be blessed in order to be a blessing to the world (Genesis 12: 2). One wonders what the history of Israel might have been had the Hebrews lived into this picture. One wonders how God’s expression of love for the nations may have played itself out had Abraham been faithful from the beginning, trusting God fully, instead of fearfully trying to pass off his wife as his sister, for instance. God, it seems, has always cared about the whole world. God’s chosen people, it seems, have always found ways to disobey and copy other nations’ pursuit of other gods. If, for instance, the chosen people had demonstrated an ability to stay faithful to God while being in close proximity to other people groups, would wars of conquest have been necessary?

Second (and more controversially) is this: is God’s endorsement of the conquest of Canaan a true reflection of God’s view of the situation, or is it Israel’s self perception? Raising the question may make some think I am questioning the inspiration of the bible. I’m not. I believe it to be God’s word for us. But it is God’s word in the words and through the cultural lens of a specific group of people. Has some of that cultural view become a part of our scriptures? That does not, in my view, make it any less authoritative or less inspired or less “Godly”. But it does help to make sense of the apparent discrepancies in the issues of war and peace in the Old versus the New Testaments.

Finally (for now): what is the book of Jonah but an explicit condemnation of the Hebrew belief that they were better and more deserving of God’s grace than others? If God “endorsed” the view of the rightness of war and conquest for his chosen people, could he do anything worse than forgive the most oppressive and powerful enemy of Israel, as he does in Jonah? God goes to great lengths to help Jonah and Israel to see that God has a right and a responsibility to be concerned for–and to love–even horrific, pagan enemies.

So, maybe it isn’t as cut and dried as it seems at first glance. Maybe it isn’t God changing the rule book mid-stream. Maybe God has always desired that human beings would live in such a way that we could be open to one another. If pacifists have to wrestle with the wars of the Old Testament, which we do, then just war proponents have to wrestle with something, too: the suffering of God and the cross of Jesus. And that will be the next blog reflection.

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One thought on “Peacemaking and the Old Testament

  1. The question raised is one of the most vexing, and I think Gregg, despite his soft-selling himself, has made some helpful points. I’m writing on the fly, too, but will make a few brief points.(1) This question is not a problem just for pacifists. Every follower of Jesus knows that he said “You have heard it said, but I say . . .love your enemies.” All Christians believe that Jesus revealed, not changed, God’s character (“if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father” and the Eternal Word become human “full of grace and truth”). Further, virtually all Christians believe that God’s sovereignty and love extend over all peoples, a point that is also explicitly and implicitly all over the Old Testament, too. Gregg rightly points to God’s purpose to bless all nations through Abraham (and, I would add, similarly through the covenant with Israel that sets them up as a “kingdom of priests”) and to Jonah’s message being directly to say that God loves and forgives even the worst people in the history of the cosmos. So in this context, all Christians have to deal with the question of how to understand Israel’s wars. (2) I can’t do the detail here, but need to say that the extent and character of Israel’s wars in the OT are widely misunderstood. This doesn’t erase the problem, but changes the questions. Israel had clear principles about when and how they should go to war that are important to inform our thinking about what they did.(3) The question of whether Israel rightly understood God (or, put another way, if God really told Israel to conduct war in the way they did), has three unsatisfactory answers that I know of, all of which have a plausible biblical basis. The answers are Yes, No, and Yes/No.(4) In terms of how all of this informs our ethical choices, I believe that people who choose to follow Joshua (Jesus) of Nazareth should do what he clearly says rather than skipping over him to follow Joshua of OT fame when that seems more convenient. I find “you have heard it said, but I say…” to be very compelling.So I promised brief, but have been long and still incomplete. Blessings!Howard

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